A sluggish start to the David Moyes era at Manchester United keeps gaining speed. Another mighty puff of steam was acquired Wednesday as the fabled English club qualified in highest possible style for Champions League knockout stages, with a full match to spare.
United are now unbeaten in 11 consecutive contests across all competitions. Despite last weekend’s meek draw with Cardiff, Moyes’ men have crept to within sniffing distance of the Premier League’s top spot – and now they can focus on closing the gap, Champions League advancement secured thanks to a dominant 5-0 win Wednesday over a humbled Bayer Leverkusen.
Wayne Rooney assisted on Antonio Valencia’s early goal and then provided the stinging free kick that turned into an own goal and a 2-0 lead after just 30 minutes at the BayArena. Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Nani provided United’s second half goals in what must surely be the most impressive win yet under Moyes.
It was United’s biggest winning margin yet in a Champions League road contest.
Claiming victory on the road in Champions League is always an achievement. Winning by a five-spot at Bayer Leverkusen is worth an extra pat on the back; Sami Hyypia’s club, currently second in Bundesliga matters, had won its previous eight home matches in Champions League.
Manchester United meanwhile, with Spurs, Everton and Newcastle all ahead in league play before a Dec. 10 Champions League group stage closer against Shakhtar Donetsk, can surely use the relief. Wednesday’s display was as sharp as the score indicates, especially impressive considering Moyes’ team played without Marouane Fellaini (suspended) and Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick (both injured).
The subplot here was Ryan Giggs, who was starting in the world’s top club competition two days before his 40th birthday, a remarkable feat for any high-level athlete, much less one still performing at top-rev for one of the globe’s glamour clubs.
Shinji Kagawa took full advantage of his turn in Moyes’ starting 11, beginning his team’s first strike with a gritty win in midfield. From there it went to birthday boy Giggs and then to Rooney, whose ball across from the left was probably tougher than he made it look. Either way, Valencia was running hard to the far post to give his club a lead after 22 mins.
Kakawa provided so much of the push out of the midfield and the quality linking for the visitors Wednesday. And that link-up play with Rooney allowed the England international to do his thing, too.
Eight minutes later, Rooney was again the provider, this time whipping in a free kick from the left. His curler rocketing toward the far post with a menace, Bayer’s Emir Spahić did his best, but rose only high enough to help Rooney’s ball find the top corner for a 2-0 lead.
Despite the showpiece win, Manchester United could not officially claim the group’s top spot; Shakhtar Donetsk’s win over Real Sociedad means the group title remains in dispute, although United needs just a draw at home on Dec. 10 to finish in first. By claiming first in Group A, the Red Devils can help themselves avoid current champion Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and those bedeviling sides from Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid, in the next round.